rabble blogs are the personal pages of some of Canada's most insightful progressive activists and commentators. All opinions belong to the writer; however, writers are expected to adhere to our guidelines. We welcome new bloggers -- contact us for details.

Tar Sands mercury levels increasing at alarming rate

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support rabble.ca for as little as $5 per month!

Image: Sierra Club

Most people my age cite Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" when asked how they first became aware of the environment and the need to protect and preserve it. For many, the moment was the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970.

My moment of truth was the mercury poisoning at the Grassy Narrows Reserve in northwest Ontario. Between 1962 and 1970, two First Nations communities' staple food -- fish -- had been contaminated with record-high levels of mercury from a chemical plant up the river. But no one knew, and for almost a decade they consumed the poison.

Much has been learned since Japanese researcher Dr. Masazumi Harada first visited the Grassy Narrows reserve and identified what would come to be known as Ontario Minamata disease. The first Minamata disease was documented in 1956 in a Japanese fishing village that shared a bay with a pulp and paper plant (not surprisingly, Grassy Narrows is also downstream from pulp and paper plant).

I would never have heard about Grassy Narrows if it were not for one of my house mates Maryanne -- he was part of a group working with Toronto lawyer Norman Zlotkin to build a legal case for the band at Grassy Narrows.

I was reminded of all this this morning when an email arrived regarding the Tar Sands and mercury contamination. So much information on the devastation of the northern Alberta environment is being generated these days that I had apparently missed an important October 15 Globe and Mail story about a study -- done, but not released to the public -- by the federal-provincial Joint Oil Sands Monitoring (JOSM) program. JOSM's creation in 2012 was in response to two devastating studies that concluded Tar Sands monitoring was woefully inadequate.

This was the third such study on mercury in the Tar Sands region. The latest conclusion was that 

The mercury levels in the eggs of the predators studied paint a bleak picture. It means fish swimming in the lakes and rivers -- not long ago pristine -- were contaminated with mercury. Authors of the reports were careful not to point the finger at the rapid expansion of the Tar Sands as a potential cause, but amazingly suggested Chinese coal fired power plants could be the culprit.

Here in Ottawa, I once stormed out of a government consultation on mercury pollution in frustration over the benefit of the doubt afforded to industry...but I digress.

Based on the experience at Minamata and Grassy Narrows, shouldn't we be asking what is happening to the (mostly) Aboriginal peoples eating these contaminated fish?

A generation ago, governments and industry in Japan and Canada forced victims of mercury pollution to mount legal and political battles before doing the right thing and protecting their citizens' health. Here we are today and government and industry are behaving the same way. Fifty years ago they could legitimately claim they didn't know what was happening, but not today.

Precautionary Principle

Ignorance is never an excuse and willful ignorance is criminal. Though much more scientific work is needed, there is already enough evidence to support two immediate actions that have not been taken:

1. Conduct a comprehensive health study of the people in the Athabasca region; and

2. Make it mandatory that industry install mercury scrubbing technology in all their stacks.

Until there is clear evidence that mercury levels have started to fall in the region, this is the only logical and ethical approach. It's not rocket science.

Turning a blind eye to Tar Sands health impacts on native communities is not only criminal -- it's immoral and must stop. Haven't our First Nations been through enough already?


Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.